At the Champions Dinner in the Augusta clubhouse on Tuesday night, Jose Maria Olazabal read out a letter from Seve Ballesteros. Inevitably, these were to prove emotive words from the Spaniard still trying to beat cancer at his home in Pedreña. But the part that had the likes of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh really reaching for the hankies, came near the end. "I wish I could be there," said Seve.
In truth, everyone who has ever picked up a club should wish they were here. For what lies in store these next few days could just be a classic worthy of Ballesteros himself. Certainly the build-up suggests that the 73rd Masters will be extremely special; it has been filled with more storylines than your average Hollywood producer's in-tray. And some are extremely corny. For starters there is Greg Norman and a final, undreamt-of shot at the Green Jacket he has always deserved. If the 54-year-old can shrug off all those Augusta agonies and become the oldest major champion in the game's history then even Jack Nicklaus's stunning trip down the memory lane that was Magnolia Lane in 1986 will be put in the shade of the big oak tree.
Of course, such a notion is firmly rooted in the realms of fantasy, particularly at the new Augusta where the extra yards, extra trees and extra inches of rough cause an old campaigner's prayers to sound yet more forlorn. Norman recognises this. "It's not the same golf course I last played in 2002; it makes [the US Open venue] Bethpage Black look like a pitch-and-putt," he said. "You know I'm going out there to do the opposite of what I used to do – have fun. I always tried to have fun, mind you. But it never worked out that way."
Having fun around here will not be easy. Yet for the first time in a number of years it at least seems possible. For once the weather is conspiring to produce the ideal conditions with sunshine and light winds forecasted up until Sunday. On a rain-softened layout there is the real prospect of the Augusta roar making its return.
To be fair to the green-jackets they have played their part by reducing the length of the course – a precedent, no less. It is only 10 yards shorter but it is a start, as the previous inclination had always been to make it harder. They seem to have heeded the lessons of the last two bore-fests. As have the game's protagonists who have converged on the season's first major like heroes possessed. None of them have timed their run with the precision of Tiger Woods. The world No 1's return from the reconstruction to his left knee that enforced an eight-month absence already forms an incredible chapter in golfing folklore. The comeback win in Bay Hill two Sundays ago was just what he needed as much as being what the game needed. As is his way, Woods gives the week an obvious sense of credibility, although the suspicion in this quarter is that he remains a few outings, and perhaps a victory, shy. Granted, he did prove at Torrey Pines last June when lifting his 14th major title, that he can prevail against any odds. But winning a major on one leg, is one thing; winning a major on one win, another.
Woods is capable of doing so, but the 7-4 on offer is quite frankly absurd. Especially when one scans down the list of his rivals and analyses their collected rude health.
Phil Mickelson, for one, is in the finest shape of his career. If he can win a third Green Jacket in six years and if Woods, for the first time since he last won here in 2005, fails to finish in the top five, Mickelson will assume the world No 1 mantle. That is one juicy carrot for the golfer who has at last learned to suppress the instincts of a gambler. His short game was simply staggering when winning at Doral last month.
Padraig Harrington boasts no such form, but what he does boast is recent major form. Indeed, as the Dubliner tries to emulate Woods and Ben Hogan in winning three majors on the bounce he does so blissfully aware of the exact hows and whens. Harrington's sole objective is to get to the 10th tee on Sunday afternoon in contention. If he manages that then he fancies his chances. Against anyone. In fact, as he told The Independent, the bigger the better in his book.
It was a statement of where he is mentally. The "Paddy Slam" might be a joke to many on this side of the pond, but he a deadly serious contender. The 18-1 quoted by the bookmakers borders on the insulting. Harrington has finished in the top 10 here in the last two years and is a Masters champion waiting to happen. But then, there are others in the 96-man field who also have a case to believe they are due. Quietly as ever, Retief Goosen has re-emerged and if it does degenerate into a slog then he should be fancied to go one better than two years ago. Geoff Ogilvy, meanwhile, has a classicists' chance. And then there is Paul Casey.
Of all the Britons in attendance desperate to win their country's first major in a decade, no one stands out like last week's Houston Open victor. Casey must ensure that he does not blow it with a bad first day, as he has on so many occasions in the majors. This place was made for him. Casey's live chance makes the fare so much more alluring for the British golf fan.
As, naturally, does the presence of Rory McIlroy. In many respects the teenaged Ulsterman has been the star of the prelude, as the game has anticipated a first rookie Masters winner in 30 years. No doubt, McIlroy has the talent, the game, the temperament; but the experience is everything around here. Rory should be enjoyed, but not backed. Not yet.
It was a similar story when Ballesteros made his maiden visit in 1977. That skinny 19-year-old wowed the galleries sufficiently to spark a long love affair. It is such memories which so touched his fellow champions on Tuesday evening. "Seve gave me a letter to read out at the dinner and I was happy to do so," said Olazabal. "The room fell very silent after I had finished, it was very emotional. Quite a few players came up to me after the dinner and asked if they could have a copy, so I will get it photocopied and will place one in each locker of every player who was at the dinner. He's an incredible man. We hope to see him back here very, very soon." Amen to that. Indeed, Amen Corner, to that.
First round: Tee-off times and groups in full
*Today and tomorrow
(US unless stated; all times BST, x=amateur)
12.50 A Palmer (honorary starter, Thursday only)
13.00 and 16.07 I Woosnam (GB), C Reavie, B Baird
13.11 and 16.18 S Lyle (GB), B Mayfair, T Clark (SA)
13.22 and 16.29 K Sutherland, R Fisher (GB), P Marksaeng (Thai)
13.33 and 16.40 L Oosthuizen (SA), C Pettersson (Swe), D Hart
13.44 and 16.51 R Floyd, J Leonard, (x) R Saxton (Ned)
13.55 and 17.02 F Zoeller, M Campbell (NZ), K Duke
14.06 and 17.24 B Curtis, N Watney, M A Jimenez (Sp)
14.17 and 17.35 C Stadler, R Sabbatini (SA), D Johnson
14.28 and 17.46 G Player (SA), L Donald (GB), S Ames (Can)
14.39 and 17.57 R Goosen (SA), S Hansen (Den), S Katayama (Japan)
14.50 and 18.08 B Langer (Ger), G Norman (Aus), L Westwood (GB)
15.12 and 18.19 J Rose (GB), H Stenson (Swe), A Cabrera (Arg)
15.23 and 18.30 V Singh (Fiji), G Ogilvy (Aus), E Els (SA)
15.34 and 18.41 M Weir (Can), P Harrington (Irl), R Imada (Japan)
15.45 and 18.52 P Mickelson, C Villegas (Col), J Furyk
15.56 and 19.03 S Appleby (Aus), O Wilson, S Garcia (Sp)
16.07 and 13.00 L Mize, J Merrick, (x) D Kittleson
16.18 and 13.11 T Hamilton, S Flesch, M Goggin (Aus)
16.29 and 13.22 T Watson, I Poulter (GB), (x) S Wilson
16.40 and 13.33 A Baddeley (Aus), B Watson, G McDowell (GB)
16.51 and 13.44 M O'Meara, P Perez, D J Trahan
17.02 and 13.55 F Couples, R Mediate, (x) J Newman
17.24 and 14.06 S Kjeldsen (Den), S O'Hair, R Sterne (SA)
17.35 and 14.17 A Romero (Arg), B Weekley, C Campbell
17.46 and 14.28 B Crenshaw, P Casey (GB), S Stricker
17.57 and 14.39 Y Yong-eun (Kor), R Allenby (Aus), H Mahan
18.08 and 14.50 Z Johnson, L Wen-tang (Tai), R Karlsson (Swe)
18.19 and 15.12 J M Olazabal (Sp), M Kaymer (Ger), B Snedeker
18.30 and 15.23 K J Choi (Kor), A Quiros (Sp), K Perry
18.41 and 15.34 T Immelman (SA), A Scott (Aus), (x) D Lee (NZ)
18.52 and 15.45 T Woods, S Cink, J M Singh (India)
19.03 and 15.56 A Kim, R McIlroy (GB), R Ishikawa (Japan)
Weather forecast and TV times
Sunny, max temp: 24C Wind: 9 mph Humidity: 42 per cent
Sunny intervals, max temp 25C, wind 14 mph, humidity 48%
Sunny with light showers, max temp 24C, wind 16 mph, humidity 40%
Sunny, max temp. 21C, wind 8 mph, humidity 37%
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